A demonstrator holds a sign reading “climate justice” at a Fridays for Future protest calling for funding for climate action at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Peter Dejong / Associated Press)

A demonstrator holds a sign reading “climate justice” at a Fridays for Future protest calling for funding for climate action at the COP27 U.N. Climate Summit, Friday, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Peter Dejong / Associated Press)

Editorial: What 1.5 degrees means for climate change fight

It’s a warning and a goal that we and our leaders must meet with a balance of alarm and optimism.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Extreme weather events just in the last few months might raise questions for some about the significance held for the goal of keeping the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius since the pre-industrial era.

Already, we’re at a 1.2 degree increase, with just tenths of a degree left before hitting the limit advised by scientists with the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and set in the 2015 Paris Agreement by nearly 200 nations.

Yet, even without passing that mark, we’ve witnessed the following climate-change-influenced events:

Aided by a months-long dry spell, the Bolt Creek Fire, a west-of-the-Cascades wildfire in Snohomish County, consumed nearly 15,000 acres, forced evacuations, closed U.S. 2 for days, harmed businesses and significantly added to the smoke that choked the air throughout Western Washington in the early fall, smoke that has become increasing common each summer and fall in Western Washington.

Drought drew down rivers worldwide, such as the Western U.S.’s Colorado River and its man-made reservoirs to near “dead-pool” levels.

Record monsoons and flooding left a third of Pakistan underwater.

Heat waves killed hundreds in Phoenix, Ariz., and thousands throughout Europe.

And a massive hurricane in Florida, Ian, killed at least 114 people and could result in losses of $74 billion.

Among the news coming out of the U.N.’s latest international conference, COP27 in Egypt, was that the world is now likely to blow past the last three-tenths of a degree of the 1.5 degree limit in just nine years, with no sign that the world has reached its peak of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon-dioxide. Those emissions are expected to hit a new high this year, The Washington Post reported, with much of the increase coming from a 1 percent rise in the amount of carbon emissions from fossil fuels, largely from the United States and India.

To avoid hitting the 1.5 degree limit, the world would have to reduce emissions by 1.4 billion tons a year, comparable to the reduction seen during the economic slowdown caused by the covid pandemic in 2020. Such reductions, of course, can’t be left to shutdowns of the worldwide economy.

In truth, the 1.5 degree mark isn’t so much a cliff, as it is an ever-steepening slope, with an ever-growing severity in consequences for every tenth of a degree increase, and an ever-increasing imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible, as soon as possible.

“The thing that’s obviously really important to say is that the 1.5C limit is a political limit,” David Keith, told Bloomberg News. Keith is a Harvard University physicist and an adviser to the Climate Overshoot Commission, an expert group that suggests ways to reduce risk once the world exceeds the Paris targets. “Whether it matters or not depends on how it matters politically. It’s not like there’s some scientific magic at 1.5C.”

Yet, it does matter politically and economically.

David Wallace-Wells, a climate journalist for The New York Times Magazine made the case last Sunday for both alarm and optimism.

The case for alarm rests, he believes, in that the likely final high point for the Celsius degree mark is somewhere between 2 and 3 degrees, with even greater frequency and severity of climate disasters, impacts on nations less able to respond and prepare for the climate effects and resulting migration and conflict.

The case for optimism is made in recognizing how quickly new clean-energy technologies continue their development and are now surpassing fossil fuels in their affordability. And how soon we could leave fossil fuels behind.

Since 2010, Wallace-Wells notes in his article, “Beyond Catastrophe: A New Climate Reality Is Coming Into View,” the cost of solar power and lithium-battery technology has fallen by more than 85 percent; the cost of wind power by more than 55 percent. Solar power, the International Energy Agency predicts, will become “the cheapest source of electricity in history.”

Another report the writer points to found that 90 percent of the global population lives where new renewable sources of power are cheaper to develop than new infrastructure for fossil-fuel energy.

Markets, Wallace-Wells writes, have noticed and made greater investments in green energy than in fossil fuels.

That’s even as Europe has scrambled to find supplies of natural gas following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Biden administration has tapped the federal petroleum reserve and with a fist-bump placed oil over human rights in seeking greater production from Saudi Arabia, only to be rebuffed by OPEC and Russia.

The political case for 1.5 degrees, then, is made even stronger by the promise of not having to tolerate the abuses and further enrichment of leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The economic case for 1.5 degrees is seen in the advancement of clean energy sources, technologies, energy efficiency and their increasing affordability, all a product of further implementation and encouragement. Automakers already are preparing to phase out fossil-fueled vehicles, persuaded by the decisions by European nations and U.S. states — including California and Washington — to limit sales of new vehicles to zero-emission cars and light trucks in the coming years.

Likewise, Washington state’s Building Code Council voted earlier this month to require electric heat pumps for heating and cooling and electric water heaters for all new home construction, a change that could save families in Washington $1,000 a year over the lifetime of the heating and cooling equipment, according to the state Department of Commerce, and reducing the use of natural gas and its emissions from production and use.

As individuals, a similar approach — a balance of alarm and optimism — is best for our own response to climate change; motivation that guides are own choices about the products we buy and the decisions we make each day that keeps in mind the consequences of failing and the rewards of accomplishment; even if by tenths of a degree.

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